Your Hidden Skill: Mentalization
This is an interesting one!
Have you ever reflected on your ability to understand that you possess your own mind and motivations and so do other people? It seems so basic and foundational that we never credit it. Yet, it is instrumental to our ability to understand both ourselves and those around us!
Despite what the term suggests, mentalization is something you and I don’t actively think about. It develops in the early years of our lives before we are even aware of it.
And it only becomes noticeable in others when it is lacking.
Here is a simple and clear definition.
Mentalization: The ability to understand and reflect on your own and others’ mental states. A key part of this understanding is knowing that what we think, feel, desire, and believe affects our outer behaviour
Mentalization affects the way we INTERPRET our actions and the actions of others. When we can mentalize, we interpret actions according to the knowledge that everyone (including ourselves) is guided by their own unique motivations, feelings, thoughts, desires, and beliefs.
Those who have incomplete mentalization abilities may not reflect on their inner self and can also unconsciously believe and act as though everyone around them has the same motivations guiding behaviour as they do.
Why Is Mentalization So Important?
Without mentalization, we don’t have proper insight into what we are feeling and why. This also applies to having insight into other peoples’ feelings and experiences. We are shut out from making the connection between desires, feelings, and different motivations to outward behaviours.
Here is another way to describe it: Mentalization allows us to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside
To illustrate this properly, let’s discuss what life without mentalization skills might look like.
Life Without Mentalization
Ella is a 56-year old woman with 3 children. She immigrated to Canada with her children, who are now adults. Ella’s childhood was filled with uncertainty. She survived a civil war in her home country and her relationship with her own parents and siblings was always defined by their dangerous circumstances.
In present day, Ella has high-conflict relationships with many people, including her family, friends, and distant relatives. She often interprets people’s actions as personal attacks. Ella ruminates on the events in her life frequently, yet she does not talk about her feelings. Her adult children have noticed that Ella does not realize the impact her actions have on other people, and this causes conflict between them.
In this scenario, Ella’s high conflict relationships are a common challenge for those who lack mentalization skills. Interpersonal conflict occurs very easily when we don’t understand that other people are guided by their OWN motivations.
For example, if Ella says ‘hello’ to her son and he responds with a very brief and curt ‘hi’, Ella is likely to be very offended by this. She may not understand the reason behind the short greeting has nothing to do with her and instead, perhaps he had a bad day, or isn’t feeling well, and possibly just isn’t in the mood to chat.
When we lack mentalization skills, we struggle to act according to the truth that people have different motivations. Therefore, we are more likely to impose our OWN thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and motivations on others.
One form of this is called psychic equivalence
Psychic equivalence is the belief that your mental reality = outer reality.
Those who process events in their life from a psychic equivalence lens can be intolerant of alternate perspectives.
We can see now why mentalization is such a crucial skill! Without understanding our own mental state, we cannot regulate emotions. If we can’t understand ourselves, it becomes very difficult to understand how others see us and the world.
As a therapist, we can trace many difficulties in life to poor mentalization skills.
Mentalization And Attachment: What’s The Connection?
In the scenario above, we briefly mentioned Ella’s difficult upbringing. Her childhood and adolescence was defined by needing to survive, and this affected Ella’s relationship with her parents.
This is important because our early attachment style influences how mentalization skills develop!
If you recall, we all have a natural disposition to form close attachment bonds with our primary caregivers. The nature of this attachment bond can affect the way we behave in relationships throughout our lives, romantic or otherwise.
Our attachment relationship with early caregivers can also affect our cognition, including the development of mentalization skills.
Here is how it works.
When a caregiver shows interest in and understanding of their child’s experience, they help children learn how to pay attention to and process their inner world. This becomes a child’s inner working model and helps them reflect upon and understand their own states of mind. The process depends on healthy emotional interactions between a child and their caregiver. This type of interaction usually occurs within a secure attachment style.
On the other hand, when a caregiver does not model how to reflect and understand their inner world, the child may not realize their full capacity to mentalize. They do not learn how to understand their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, nor that of others. This is common when children experience insecure attachments with their caregivers.
Let’s return to Ella. She grew up in an environment with heightened fear and danger. Survival was the goal.
Her parents could not have an emotionally close relationship with her, not did they have the time or presence of mind to be interested in and understanding of Ella’s inner world. The outer world was scary, and surviving it was the priority. As a result of this, Ella’s mentalization skills did not fully develop and she often fails to reflect deeply on her own experience of the world, as well as consider that other people have an entirely different experience than her own.
This topic can be a bit tricky to wrap our heads around because most of us take mentalization skills for granted. This is why it’s a hidden skill! In a way, we just spent the last few minutes thinking about thinking- how meta. Let us know if you are interested in learning more about these meta-style topics!
I want to hear from you: Can you trace any difficulties in your life to problems with mentalization? It’s more common than we think!
Until next time!
Zainib Abdullah is the co-founder and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Her approach to healing incorporates various therapeutic modalities. She works from a client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive/colonial & trauma-informed framework. As a yoga teacher and student in the lineage of Classical Yoga, she further incorporates mindfulness based therapies to support clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.